We are Brian and Martina,
two Scottish based walkers and climbers and in
1998 we decided to attempt to walk across the United States from the
Mexican border to Canada. You can see more
of the other outdoor things we get up to on the rest of our
website. The route we aimed to follow
was the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which, at 2,600 miles in length, is
one of the hardest but also most magnificent long distance walks in the
world. Being keen on camping wild, that is carrying a tent or shelter
away from the road and preferably high onto mountains, the US long
distance trails looked like an exciting adventure and one where we could
enjoy an extended six month journey of continuous hiking. There are
three main established US long distance trails:
Appalachian Trail (AT)- 2,000miles on the east side of the US
Continental Divide Trail (CDT)- up to 3,000miles along or near the
crest of the US Rockies
Crest Trail (PCT)- 2,600miles along the western mountain ranges
AT is the most popular and travels through forest for the most
part. The CDT is tougher and not entirely complete as a trail
with fewer hikers attempting it. The PCT appealed as it meanders
through a great variety of landscapes from desert in Southern California,
the volcanic chain in the north, the Cascade mountains in Washington
and the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in California (an area
we had already visited in 1996 on a climbing holiday to Mt Whitney
and Yosemite valley). I had a read a book by an English hiker,
Townsend in the 1980's, (The Great Backpacking Adventure) which
described his journey on the PCT in 1982 as well as other hikes and
this more or less set the seed in my mind that I would like to take
six months off work and attempt it.
The Pacific Crest Trail itself is pretty much a continuous path
2,600 miles long and the construction of the trail is an impressive
tribute to the hard work of park services and hundreds of volunteers.
Each year repairs are required to the trail as bridges collapse, trees
blew over the trail etc. Although the path exists there are many
variants and we new that we would have to be flexible in snow covered
areas, where the trail wasn't possible due to damage and when we wanted
to do more scenic diversions. You can camp almost all the way
along the trail with few restrictions which was a great delight to us.
Our aim was to
stick to the
wildest route that we could and to spend the absolute minimum time
walking on roads. To do this, we aimed to carry camping equipment and up to
10 days food, water and stove fuel with us. This will give us the freedom
to camp where and when we like, vary our itinery and stay as
flexible as we can...
Our general pattern
was to walk for around 5 days at a time then descend to town and 'rest' for a
day. In practise though the rest days were a busy hotch potch of eating,
washing, cleaning and repairing with a little sleep thrown in!
When to tackle the trail
Because of the great length of the trail, many hikers choose to tackle a section at a time and
split the walking into a number of separate holidays. This enables them to
choose a suitable season to walk a particular part of the trail. For instance, a
desert crossing could be arranged to avoid the summer when the highest
temperatures could be expected.
In order to
cover the whole 2,600 miles in one continuous journey however, we had to plan
carefully to fit our walking into the most suitable seasons. In particular, we
wanted to cross the mountain ranges in reasonable conditions avoiding the worst
weather and after the winter snow pack had melted. In the highest mountains this
restricted us to June to September. The desert areas can be a cauldron of heat
in mid-summer and many water sources can dry up. So these are best tackled
outside the summer season.
We eventually decided to leave from the Mexican border in late April, planning
to walk between 15 to 25 miles per day in order to reach the Canadian border by early October.
This meant that we would cross the dry arid regions around the Mojave desert in
early May and begin our crossing of the highest region, the Sierra Nevada mountains,
in June, hoping that the winter snow pack which had accumulated would have
melted sufficiently to enable our crossing. By keeping to our planned daily
mileage we would also reach the northern Cascade mountain ranges of Washington by October – hopefully
before the winter snow falls start in earnest. At best though, this plan was a
compromise and we realised that we would be walking through many regions in less
than perfect conditions.
We decided to allocate a rest day per week into our plans which
would allow for much needed rests, washing and dealing with mail etc
Fortunately there is a depth of information available about the Pacific
Crest Trail which we were able to tap into. The Pacific
Crest Trail Association produce
books containing detailed
maps for the whole trail and these were a chief planning resource.
They also have a little gem of a book called the PCT Data book which
provides information on important features (such as water supplies,
road crossings, nearby towns, landscape features) where we could plan
out the distance we would have to hike between refreshing our supplies.
Once we had a list of preferred resupply stops and the distance between
them, then we had a basic structure to our hike. It has to be said
though that, partly because of the type of people we are, and partly
for flexibility, we did try and build in as many variations as possible
and were constantly changing plans as we went along.
suppose we would only find out how we would hike over thousands of
miles when we started out and hiked!
other major source of help to us was an internet
mailing list where aspirant hikers, seasoned hikers and anyone
interested can talk away online. We were able to put questions to
the group and to get caught up in the enthusiasm through the previous
winter with other hikers preparing for a long hike. It was here that
Martina chatted to Greg from near LA who had hiked the trail twenty
years ago and, fantastically for us, agreed to help out with our resupply
parcels whilst we were on the trail.
In defiance of modern technology and equipment he walked the whole
PCT in jeans! His generous background work was the key to giving us
a chance to succeed.
From the online discussions we thought that there
might be around 50 people trying to do a complete thru hike from border to
border. That sounds like a lot but given that some might start from Canada and
some from Mexico and all might start on different dates we guessed we would
probably be hiking alone much of the time.
The purpose of our
resupply was to pick up food and any other items that would allow us to hike to
the next resupply. In reality this was mostly food, but also stove fuel, repairs
and replacement items. Some towns that we were to encounter would provide all
our needs but in some more remote areas we decided to pre pack a box of supplies
and mail it to ourselves to be collected when we arrived via 'general delivery'.
We also packed maps for each section of the hike and some photographic film to
avoid having to carry these items too far.
In addition we
gathered some other optional gear in a box and forwarded this on to ourselves
to the next resupply- this contained things like spare warm clothes, a music player,
novels, other guidebooks, repair items, new socks etc. Before starting the hike
we pre packaged supply boxes for the first 4 weeks or so and arranged with Greg
for him to send them to our next post
office when we were nearing it. After this initial period we adopted a more
flexible approach which was just to shop locally for supplies at the time as
much as we could. This allowed for our changing dietary requirement through the
hike and mostly saved us one big supply packaging job!
were both fairly experienced outdoors people before starting the PCT
so had a good idea of what equipment to take and it was mostly well
tested. What would be new to us was the huge length of the six month
undertaking and the need to travel as light as possible in order to
stay fresh enough for the duration. I had read a handbook by
Jardine who had some imaginative ideas about lightening the load
to carry on a long hike and had proved these worked by completing
some ultra long hikes (including the PCT) with his wife in fine style.
Ray was known to me as he had also achieved success inventing a new
piece of climbing equipment - the camming device or friend- whilst
being at the forefront of rock climbing standards in Yosemite National
Our main items were
our Terra Nova Voyager tent, down sleeping bags, inflatable thermarest sleeping
mats, MSR Whisperlight stove running on Coleman fuel (a cleaner petrol readily
available in the US), tried and trusted rucksacks and we intended to try
lightweight footwear from hiking boots, running shoes to sandals. Our rucksacks
weighed about 10kg loaded with gear but without food- not super light by any
means but we were prepared to change the gear we carried and evolve as we hiked.
about our journey starting on the Mexican Border in Southern California....